A big circle drawn with little hands. STEVE RODEN
(Iniitu 2012)

Review by Caity Kerr

Back in the day, and it wasn’t so long ago, there were relatively few people calling themselves sound artists and getting away with it. Fast forward a few years, not much more, and everyone’s at it. Steve Roden is one of the few artists who has actually been round the block many times and who has had a reasonably consistent output over a fair span of time. In the field of the sonic arts, which is virtually devoid of serious critical discourse, this is often enough to guarantee a prominent place in the hall of fame. Steve probably deserves to be in there for longevity and for having inspired many a lonely bedrooms artist to persist with their experiments. Whether his association with lowercase sound will bear critical fruit is a matter of time. As far as I can see lowercase’s most lasting legacy has been to spawn the habit of minimalist artists writing everything in lower case, which I still do myself occasionally, but resist from time to time mainly in order to be obtuse but also because I was having serious problems with the authority of the full stop.

Steve Roden’s a big circle drawn with little hands is a 2012 vinyl release on ini itu.

Here’s the track listing:-

A1. sixteen hand waiting for rain [5:00]

A2. two hands submerged in water [12:34]

A3. sparks from one hand on fire [3:29]

B1. two hands behind glass [8:46]

B2. one hand pressing a pencil against a tree [7:14]

B3. forty hands in anticipation of a word [6:01]

Before I get to the music I should mention that the details on the artist’s website are very helpful in explaining the limitations placed on resources from the very start.

a big circle drawn with little hands was created from a box of things sent to me by sylvian, who runs the ini itu label. the box contained everything from newspapers, coins, wooden toys, pamphlets, plastic objects, plastic bags, broken airline headphones, notes, a bottle opener, a noise maker of wood, a small electronic toy shaped like a butterfly that offered tones and animal noises, cardboard, a fan, and other things. i also used a banjo in the first track, and my voice in the last track.

the lp was mastered by taylor deupree, and the cover design and photos were done by sylvain.

a number of people have attempted to “de-code” the song titles, but like the rest of the approach to the soundmaking, etc. the titles actually also came from one of the items in the box of stuff sylvain sent to me – a newspaper, and i used each of the photographs to determine the titles, based on the number of hands appearing in an image as well as the image’s narrative. the title of the lp was based on a drawing made by sylvain’s daughter.

Note the lower case text – I’m still not sure about the full stops though.

The music is simple, linear, naïve and bland, most likely deliberately so. I didn’t think people made music like this any more but obviously they do. A little over a decade ago I could have drawn a line from the likes of Jeff Mills via beatless dance music to some of this kind of music. For example track 1 could be an IDM production with the beats stripped off. In the background lurks the ever-present threat of designer music. At one time this was fashionable and popular. Nowadays it sounds dated, such is the fashion industry of underground and experimental music.

There is no investigation of complexity in this music, which isn’t a problem in itself, and probably points to the fact that the sources were very limited, timbrally very simple, or, depending on how critical you want to be, not versatile enough to offer any more than a series of surface studies.

The loops and the linearity of their presentation become very predictable – tracks 2 and 5 are good examples of this. It’s similar to the approach that a dj would take to making tracks right down to the the inevitable breakdowns. First this, then that, then this again in a slightly different form. Then you take nearly all of it away and build it up again. The most positive aspect of this is that in the absence of layers you are able to hear qualities of the individual sounds. This is most revealing in the field recordings, here presented quite simply.

As you listen in closely you should be able to appreciate a certain warmth in the tonal balance of the album – nothing is too harsh on the ear. Whether this is a mastering or a compositional virtue is open to debate but at times the individual pieces come over more as productions than as compositions, and I believe that there is a difference between the two activities.

Track 6, despite pulling the listener in, is one of the most evanescent tracks on the album in the sense that it doesn’t offer anything fresh on subsequent auditions despite the shuffled loops, for example, revealing a little more each time round. I’m not sure what’s being explored here above and beyond the creative use of some sound objects.

I wouldn’t accuse Steve Roden of slack work because he is a genuinely gifted artist and has made some very meaningful and lasting work. However many of these schools and movements such as lowercase sound, if that’s what this is, remind me of Britpop or Brit Art in which the protagonists hunt in packs and rally under the banner of a clever name, protected by their media champions. They are masters at promoting themselves. Unfortunately though you do get caught out eventually, as those BritArt folks are finding under the harsh light of ruthless critics like Brian Sewell and the less cowardly writers of the visual arts establishment.

It sounds as if I’m being mean towards this work but I’m not. It is what it is – consistent throughout, rigorously constructed according to a severe but tightly focused aesthetic. Bland and monotonous but not necessarily boring. These are great strengths. Whether I happen to like the sound world or not is irrelevant, though I’m confident that I could develop and argue the case for the prosecution more critically with more pages at my disposal.

I had expected more of the ineffable beauties of wabi-sabi from this album because there was a period of a wonderful few years, which I had always associated with Roden and a few other pioneers, in which an aesthetic arose which valued such attributes as the perished, the distressed, the bland, the slightly unattractive and perhaps even the underworked. I’d like to think that this kind of work will return in some form or another.

But this album is too pristine for wabi-sabi – the intention is perhaps there in the use of reduced resources, but the execution is too considered and meticulous. Where it does touch on wabi-sabi is in its evanescence, or if we call up some synonyms, its transitory, transient, ephemeral and fleeting nature. The fact that I found myself having to listen again to remember the music told me that the music is easily forgotten. I know this sounds harsh but I don’t mean it in the sense of easily forgettable, which is entirely different. In this context, I’m underlining a conceptual strength of the work.

And let’s never take for granted the pleasure of having a big vinyl lp with good cover art in your hands.


[Steve Roden, photo courtesy of Last FM]

Steve Roden website
Ini itu website